Big Nate creator provides big inspiration

If you have a little bit of talent and a lot of dedication, greatness is within your grasp. This was the message delivered by Lincoln Peirce, author of the popular Big Nate book series, when he stopped by Foothill Country Day School on February 8 to talk about his journey from doodling kid to comic strip creator to best-selling author.

As a boy, Mr. Peirce loved the “Peanuts” comics, so he was inspired when he read this piece of wisdom in an interview with the legendary Charles Schulz. “To be a cartoonist, you need to be a good writer, not a great writer, and a good artist, not a great artist.”

Mr. Peirce, who is speaking at schools across the country in promotion of his latest book, Big Nate Flips Out, hopes to demystify the artistic process in the same way Mr. Schulz did, inspiring kids to try their hand at cartooning and other creative endeavors.

Just who is this Big Nate? If you haven’t already met him, he is Nate Wright, an irrepressible, spiky-haired sixth-grader at Public School 38, who holds the all-time school record for detentions and cherishes dreams of becoming a cartoonist.

“If you know Big Nate, he is very shy. And he is an excellent student,” the author joked, drawing laughter from the students at the local private school.

Obviously, there is more than a little of Big Nate in Mr. Peirce, though the character is 11 and the man is now 49.

“Nate is a storyteller and so am I,” he said.

Mr. Peirce doesn’t make too much distinction between the various forms of storytelling. As a kid, he spent most of his allowance on comic books—from Spiderman to Donald Duck—and comic strip collections, including those following the exploits of his beloved Charlie Brown. Books were great, too, he said, noting childhood favorites like John Dennis Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain series.

“They are all great stories, so there’s absolutely no difference,” Mr. Peirce asserts.

He wanted to tell stories like that and had a natural attraction to illustration. So as a child, he set himself a drawing curriculum that was arguably more influential than his formal education, which includes a bachelor’s degree from Colby College, and a master’s degree in drawing and painting from Brooklyn College.

One of the first steps in mastering comic book illustration is copying works by established artists. He shared his early development with the FCDS students via PowerPoint slideshow, beginning with a scanned image of an early attempt at the Peanuts characters that he drew when he was 7 on the inside cover of a Peanuts book. One of these renderings, a clearly recognizable picture of Charlie Brown featuring crude, stick-legs was particularly amusing to the crowd.

Mr. Peirce then introduced the kids to the first character he ever invented, a klutzy superhero named Super Jimmy who swoops to the rescue in the nick of time, only to make things worse. It is a glimpse of the kind of humor that would one day enliven his Big Nate comics, particularly Nate’s own forays into comic book illustration.

“I still find a lot of things funny now that were funny to me when I was in sixth grade,” Mr. Peirce admitted.  

As a kid, Mr. Peirce had a precocious ability to come up with artistic exercises, prompts he urged his audience to try. He had been struggling with how to learn to draw the same character, clearly recognizable from the front and side views, when he struck on an idea, kindled by the sight of a post office wanted poster. He realized that the wanted poster format, which features mug shots of fugitives photographed straight on and then in profile, was an ideal way to master a multi-dimensional understanding of a comic creation. From then on, he created an array of wanted posters featuring cartoon criminals.

Learning to draw can be a collective experience too, in the “add-on.” In this game, each successive participant in a group must add one random feature to the drawing of a character, depending on what his or her friends suggest. Mr. Peirce showed an example of his own add-on creation, a fellow with an elephant nose, a peg leg, a Popeye arm—complete with anchor tattoo—moose ears and a waffle-iron hand.

Yet another favorite project of Mr. Peirce’s was to fill a page with an improbable and action-packed chain of events engendered by a calamity like a tidal wave.

“When kids say I don’t know what to draw, I say draw a disaster scene,” he said.

Nate was introduced to the world in 1991 as the star of a syndicated comic strip, which now regularly graces 250 US newspapers. In 2010, Mr. Peirce published his first Big Nate chapter book, Big Nate: In a Class by Himself (2010). It quickly gained traction among kids weaned on the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and eager for more comic book-style literary fare centered on the travails of a misfit kid.

A number of Big Nate’s fans were in the audience at Mr. Peirce’s Foothill Country Day School presentation. When the author/illustrator asked who had read the Big Nate books, 2 dozen hands shot up, one—belonging to super-fan Brian Yeung—enthusiastically clutching a copy of Big Nate Flips Out.

Highlights of the talk included a demonstration period, in which Mr. Peirce undertook a quick sketch of Big Nate, a quick trivia contest carrying the prize of a Big Nate T-shirt and the opportunity to have the noted visitor sign the books some students brought to the presentation.

Big Nate enthusiasts have much to look forward to, because Mr. Peirce has been contracted to write a few more books in the series. He has no plans to shelve his markers any time soon.

“I’m 49 years old now and I’m still improving as an artist,” he said.

Mr. Peirce concluded by urging the students to talk to their teachers about participating in an ambitious upcoming project. Between now and next February, he plans to compile the world’s longest comic strip, featuring drawings by kids from throughout the world.

His stop at Foothill Country Day School provided plenty of food for thought, according to 9-year-old Alice Phung, who has read 2 of Mr. Peirce’s books.

“It’s just really interesting to hear how he comes up with all of his ideas for Big Nate,” she said.

—Sarah Torribio



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